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Surgeons fear patients are having to wait too long for planned operations, as NHS fails to tackle waiting list backlog

13 Jun 2019

Surgeons are concerned that the NHS does not have a clear plan to tackle the growing backlog of patients waiting for operations, as new figures reveal more than 4.3 million stuck on hospital waiting lists.  NHS England performance data published today for April 2019 shows that only 86.5% of patients waiting to start planned, consultant-led hospital treatment were seen within 18 weeks. The legal target is 92%.

This comes the day after publication of a Public Accounts Committee report that criticised the Department of Health for failing to hold the NHS accountable for its legal obligations to meet the 18 week target.

Professor Derek Alderson, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, has called on NHS England to put in place a 5-year plan to cut the waiting list backlog and make timely treatment for all patients a priority again.  

The waiting list for planned treatment has grown by almost 7%2 when compared to the same period last year (April 2018). 579,403 patients waited longer than 18 weeks to start treatment, an increase of 15.8%3 compared to April 2018. The government’s 92% target has not been met since February 2016 - over three years ago – leading surgeons to fear it may no longer be a priority for hospitals.4   

A report by MPs on the Public Account Committee (PAC) published yesterday, expressed concern that NHS England had removed sanctions and penalties against NHS trusts for failing to meet elective care waiting times standards. The MPs called on the Department of Health and Social Care to make clear how NHS England would be held accountable for achieving waiting time standards, and what additional support would be put in place to help local NHS bodies meet the standards. 

Responding to the performance data published today, Professor Derek Alderson, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, said:

“We must not forget that behind these numbers are patients waiting in pain and discomfort, possibly unable to work or look after themselves, all the while worried about when they might receive the treatment they need. Living this way for months on end can have a huge impact on quality of life and further deterioration in their health. 

“While we support NHS England’s work to review standards for accessing NHS services, this must not take attention away from the persistent problems on the ground. The fact of the matter is we have a huge backlog of patients waiting for treatment, and the NHS has no clear plan to tackle it. 

“Surgeons are concerned that cutting this backlog, and long waiting times for planned treatment, is not seen as a priority for the NHS at the moment. MPs are right to question how NHS England is held accountable for achieving waiting time standards. 

“Staff are working as hard as they can, but they are struggling to overcome a large backlog and ever-growing demand for services.  The NHS urgently needs a 5-year plan to clear the backlog. This plan should include directing some of the money promised to the NHS to increasing the resources and staff needed to treat patients in a timely manner.”

Notes to editors

1. Full data is available here: 

2. There were 4.02 million patients waiting to start planned treatment in April 2018. 

3. Data shows 500,073 patients waited longer than 18 weeks to start planned treatment in April 2018.

4. In March 2019, and again in April 2019, NHS Commissioners and hospitals failed to meet a key target set in NHS England and NHS Improvement’s planning guidance for 2018/19.  Refreshing NHS Plans for 2018/19 stated: “…Commissioners and providers should plan on the basis that their RTT waiting list, measured as the number of patients on an incomplete pathway, will be no higher in March 2019 than in March 2018 and, where possible, they should aim for it to be reduced.  Numbers nationally of patients waiting more than 52 weeks for treatment should be halved by March 2019, and locally eliminated wherever possible.”

5. The Royal College of Surgeons of England is a professional membership organisation and registered charity, which exists to advance surgical standards and improve patient care.

6. For more information, please contact the Press Office: Telephone: 020 7869 6047/6052; Email:; Out of hours media enquiries: 07966 486832. 

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